Heidi Crabtree | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
Each year countless tourists from near and far come to Kansas looking for stories and legends of the Frontier Army and the Wild West.
As tourists travel west on I-70, they pass through Hays. An Army town going back to the 1860s, Hays City was one of the wildest of the wild, and victims of its violent history are reinterred right here at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
As the Kansas Pacific Railroad grew along the Smoky Hill River, it needed protection from Cheyenne attacks. Fort Hays was established along Big Creek, not far from Fort Fletcher. The “new” Fort Hays was finally set up and occupied by summer of 1867, the first buildings being havens for trouble.
In 1868, companies of the 10th U.S. Cavalry were assigned to Fort Hays and the moniker “Buffalo Soldiers” possibly originated from an 1867 fight at the terminus of the KPRR.
Hays City was built around the post, which was more of an open settlement than a fortification. It quickly attracted some of the most famous names in Western history: Wild Bill Hickok briefly took over as sheriff, Buffalo Bill hunted and scouted with the 10th Cavalry, and the train depot was perfectly placed near a hotel between Fort and Main Streets, the epicenter of saloons and brothels.
If a day went by without a dead body on the street, it was an odd day indeed. A modern walk along West 10th Street finds plaque after plaque telling who was shot at that spot and when. One marker briefly tells about Cy Goddard’s Dance Hall. Legend has it that troopers belonging to Thomas Custer of the 7th Cavalry tangled with Hickok in the saloon in July 1870, resulting in two of them being shot, one mortally. Hickok moved on to become city marshal of Abilene, while Custer, who lies in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, met his fate at the Battle of the Little Big Horn almost six years later.
One of the most famous photos of Hays was taken Sept. 5, 1873, and shows two dead soldiers lying outside the dance hall, while a child peers out of a doorway at the scene as if it was just another day. Privates Peter Welch and George Sumner were members of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, killed by another soldier from their troop, David Roberts, in a drunken fight. Roberts fled, was apprehended a few days later and dishonorably discharged a month later.
There is much more to the photo and what happened to those buried at Fort Hays, some of it the stuff of nightmares.
Welch has been named in some sources as “Welsh,” and a look at the death registers confirms it was Welch. At least his name is correct on his headstone at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, unlike his partner-in-death, Sumner, who is forever memorialized as “Summer” on his marker. One record copied not long after his death erroneously listed his first name as Joseph, and despite the National Cemetery control forms typed at re-interment, his stone names him George H. Summer, when all records show it was Sumner.
Reinterred? Why were the subjects of an infamous photo moved to Fort Leavenworth?
It was decided at the turn of last century that abandoned military posts would have the cemetery residents removed and taken to other posts. Fort Hays’s military dead would be brought here, and despite the project being put off by people who were terrified that digging up remains of people who died of cholera would cause another outbreak, the job was contracted out. Many military deaths were also caused by dysentery, tuberculosis, shootings and suicides, but the cholera deaths were all people heard about.
W. A. Dawes of Leavenworth was awarded the contract and left for Hays in December 1905.
As the bodies were dug up from the cold, hard ground near Hays, it became easy to tell which were cholera victims, as some burials were a scant 18 inches deep, the bodies merely wrapped in cloth. The bodies, to prevent possible cholera spread, were rewrapped and placed into new wooden boxes. The cholera deaths were the least interesting of the story. The past also came back in gruesome ways.
Nothing was left of a 6th Cavalry saddler named Adolph Vroman, who committed suicide in 1874, except for some hair and his feet still in his boots.
A few other boxes, when opened, no doubt caused gasps. One skeleton was on its stomach and another contorted in an almost seated position — the men had been so hastily assumed dead that they were buried alive.
An African-American man was found in his coffin with arms crossed, brass knuckles still on his hands. When this story spread, Hill P. Wilson, who was sutler at Fort Hays in the early 1870s, came forward to say he knew the inside story. He claimed that the soldier belonged to the 38th Infantry, was shot while breaking into a house and buried as-is.
A few unknown 38th Infantry soldiers are indeed buried in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, along with one named Cpl. Robert Ash, listed in old registers as “dying from a gunshot wound.” Was he the brass-knuckled man?
Hays quickly forgot about its cholera scare and Fort Hays’ buildings continued to decay. The Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery is the final resting place for many victims of Hays City’s wild and wicked past, including a soldier whose photo is in countless books, yet lies buried under the wrong name.